Saturday, January 28, 2006

Mission 51-L

The mission page for Space Shuttle mission 51-L looks pretty much the same as for any other mission. Until you skim past all the verbiage about the launch and orbit stats (not too many of those) and see "Landing: None. KSC Landing planned after a 6 day, 34 minute mission."

The words make you catch your breath. The sheer, clinical, tidiness of them. But of course -- what else would they say? "Landing: a pile of burning debris in the Atlantic Ocean"? Like the rest of the mission history, it is professional, scientific.

Professional. These were professionals, after all: all of them, even the least experienced, the civilian whose presence overshadowed the others in the media and who just by being on board ensured that millions of schoolchildren were watching as the twin spirals of smoke drifted off into the clear Florida January sky.

Professional. Which is as it should be. Yet, somehow, in the mission objectives and the mission "highlights" -- highlights which never took place -- there is a sense of deep loss. "Was scheduled to have..."; "would have been deployed..."; "would have been spent in preparation of.." Experiments never perfomed, feats never accomplished, lessons never taught, dreams never fulfilled.

There would be other losses: January 27 marks the Apollo 1 fire, the first time when American men died in pursuit of space. February 1 marks the loss of Columbia, again with all hands aboard.

But Challenger was different: as a country, we had enough experience, we thought, with this space business that it was easy, safe, or relatively so. Although the launch was shown in classrooms -- primarily because of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, it wasn't on the networks, except for cable. Shuttle missions were old hat. We were naive.

We're not naive, now. Columbia struck us to the core and filled us with grief, but it didn't break our hearts like Challenger did. Instead of "Oh, my God, how could that happen?" it was "Dear God. Not again." There is a difference.

But they weren't naive, the professionals. They would have gone in knowing the dangers, and they did it anyway. And for that, we honor their memories.

Rest in Peace:

Francis R. Scobee
Michael J. Smith
Judith A. Resnik
Ellison S. Onizuka
Ronald E. McNair
Gregory B. Jarvis
Sharon Christa McAuliffe

And thank you.

It's only teenage wasteland...

It is so easy to be judgmental.

I was reading a little bit about the Starkweather homicides on History Channel's This Day In History. You remember reading about those? They were before my time -- three years before I was born, to be exact -- but they were a milestone in post-war America: teenage alienation hits home, and scares the crap out of everybody. They so impressed Billy Joel that he included them in his it's-a-list-not-a-song "We Didn't Start The Fire."

Short form, for those unfamiliar with the saga, or with Terence Malick's Badlands: boy -- Charles Starkweather -- meets girl -- Caril Ann Fugate, boy argues with girl's parents, blows them away with a shotgun, strangles baby sister, boy and girl tool around Nebraska backroads stopping every once in a while to kill someone and grab a different car. Scare the shit out of a whole lot of people for days. Become a bogeyman and a vision in adult nightmares for years.

They were finally apprehended when they crossed the state line into Wyoming. When they were picked up, Caril Ann switches sides, claims that, far from being a participant, she was a hostage. While Starkweather originally supported her claim, at her trial he turned on her.

Yeah, yeah, I said. Hostage. Right. If I were caught, I'd claim to be a hostage, too. Then, glancing back up the story, my eye caught a detail it had missed before.

Caril Ann Fugate was 14 at the time of the murders.


I remember fourteen. I remember what I would have felt like had a nineteen-year-old actually dared to look at me, let alone go out with me. I would have done anything for him... and if he turned out to be the devil incarnate, I would have not known where to turn. I wouuld have been sucked into the death spiral just as Caril Ann was.

I have not read accounts of the trial, but I imagine much was made of the fact that she did not attempt to escape. Maybe she believed he would kill her if she tried to escape -- not an unreasonable belief for anyone in her circumstances, but when you're that young you tend to feel powerless to help yourself.

But there might have been something else, too. I remember fourteen. Sometimes, when you're fourteen, you pretend bad things are just going to go away and everything is going to be all right in the end, as long as you just keep doing what you're told.

Charles Starkweather went to the electric chair -- a sociopath to the end, he refused to have his organs donated on the grounds that "No one's ever done anything for me"; Caril Ann Fugate, perhaps helped by her youth, was sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled in 1976, having spent more than half of her life in prison. She lives an uneventful life now, refusing to discuss the murders which made her infamous.

I don't know. Maybe Starkweather was right: maybe Caril Ann was every bit the willing participant he said she was. It's never possible to know what another human being is thinking. And psychopaths don't spring into adulthood full blown -- they have to start somewhere, maybe this was where she would have started, who knows.

But, my God, she was just fourteen. A psychiatrist once told me that "everyone is psychotic when they're fourteen." And yes, they don't all kill people; but then again, how many of them have Charles Starkweather as the devil at their side?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Seen any hatters, lately?

Today was Lewis Carroll's birthday. Very prescient man, Carrol:
`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

Somehow, I think Humpty Dumpty would have felt right at home in the Bush Administration:
QUESTION: Jonathan Landay with Knight Ridder. I'd like to stay on the same issue, and that had to do with the standard by which you use to target your wiretaps. I'm no lawyer, but my understanding is that the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution specifies that you must have probable cause to be able to do a search that does not violate an American's right against unlawful searches and seizures. Do you use --

GEN. HAYDEN: No, actually -- the Fourth Amendment actually protects all of us against unreasonable search and seizure.

QUESTION: But the --

GEN. HAYDEN: That's what it says.

QUESTION: But the measure is probable cause, I believe.

GEN. HAYDEN: The amendment says unreasonable search and seizure.

QUESTION: But does it not say probable --

GEN. HAYDEN: No. The amendment says --

QUESTION: The court standard, the legal standard --

GEN. HAYDEN: -- unreasonable search and seizure...

GEN. HAYDEN: Sure. I didn't craft the authorization. I am responding to a lawful order. All right? The attorney general has averred to the lawfulness of the order.

Just to be very clear -- and believe me, if there's any amendment to the Constitution that employees of the National Security Agency are familiar with, it's the Fourth. And it is a reasonableness standard in the Fourth Amendment. And so what you've raised to me -- and I'm not a lawyer, and don't want to become one -- what you've raised to me is, in terms of quoting the Fourth Amendment, is an issue of the Constitution. The constitutional standard is "reasonable." And we believe -- I am convinced that we are lawful because what it is we're doing is reasonable.

In case you're a little fuzzy on the text of the Amendment at stake here, it reads, in its entirety,

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

And there is this:
President Bush on Monday defended a program in which he authorized the National Security Agency to conduct real-time surveillance on persons in the U.S. with “clear links to al-Qaeda” and other terrorist groups, saying that he had the authority under law to authorize the program.

“Article II of the Constitution gives me that responsibility and the authority necessary to fulfill it. And after September the 11th, the United States Congress also granted me additional authority to use military force against al Qaeda,” Bush said at his year-end press conference Monday morning.

“Do I have the legal authority to do this? And the answer is, absolutely,” he said.

On Friday the New York Times revealed the existence of the NSA “special collection program” in which the NSA collects international communications of people in the U.S. with ties to terrorist groups, according to the Times. After initially refusing to confirm it, Bush confirmed the program’s existence Saturday and gave additional information on how the program works.

“Where does he find in the Constitution the authority to tap the wires and the phones of American citizens without any court oversight?” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).


Bush showed a great deal of emotion at the news conference, alternately appearing angered and appearing to plead with those watching to see things his way.

Bush emphatically denied he was trying to usurp power. “To say ‘unchecked power’ basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the President, which I strongly reject,” he said.

(The full text of Article II is here.)

While nothing in the Constitution is easy -- it is like the Bible, the devil is in the details of how you construe the document -- to say that Article II allows a president to ignore the Fourth Amendment because he feels it is expedient to do so is, even given an expansive reading of the document and the way it has been interpreted by the courts, nonsensical.

One thing Article II does require is that the president take an oath "to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." But of course, you claim to be doing that.

Quite a nice rabbit-hole you've got us into there, Mr. President.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Because it's my body, damnit.

John Tierney thinks we need to find a "gender neutral" way of dealing with abortion.
This is an easy question for those on the prolife side of the abortion debate. They'd like men to be not only notified of pregnancies, but also given veto power over abortions.

Being prochoice, I don't agree with that position, but I admire the logic. It's a gender-neutral policy: If either parent thinks it's wrong to end the pregnancy, then the pregnancy must proceed.

If the prochoice side adopted a gender-neutral policy, then either the man or the woman would have the right to say no to parenthood. I don't know of anyone advocating that a woman be required to have an abortion, but there's another right that could be given to a man who impregnates a woman who isn't his wife. If the woman decided to go ahead and have the child, she would have to notify him and give him the option early in the pregnancy of absolving himself of any financial responsibility for the child.

When I was pregant with each of my three sons, I had severe hyperemesis gravida. AKA, pregnancy sickness -- not morning sickness, as I was sick all the freaking day. We're talking multiple ER visits for rehydration with each child. I threw up so much after my law school graduation that two little old ladies stood around and tsk-tsked about graduates who drank too much. I threw up all through taking the bar exam.

During my first pregnancy, I became so severely dehydrated I had to be admitted to the hospital for 48 hours. During my third pregnancy, I developed pneumonia from having accidentally aspirated my own vomit, and became seriously ill, and spent a week in the hospital.

And these were from children I made a conscious choice to have.

Pregnancy is gender-neutral? Like hell it is.

Pregnancy carries with it significant risks. Pregnancy carries with it the risk of death and long term disability. My sister suffered nearly crippling back damage as a result of her last pregnancy.

I don't think I would have an abortion. It is a situation fraught with moral significance and I know where I come down on that question. However, who am I to make that decision for any other woman?

With each child I knew more certainly I would not have an abortion, and I knew more certainly that no woman should have any other person make that choice for her. Whatever the anti-abortion forces will say, it is her body, completely, and she should have the right to decide what she wants to live with, and what decisions her conscience dictates.

It is between a woman, her doctor, and her God. No one else.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I swear to tell...

It is a very famous story. In his memoir, Life á la Henri, famed chef Henri Charpentier tells the story of how in 1896, when serving Edward, the Prince of Wales, dessert crepes, he accidentally caught the sauce on fire. The result was delicious. The Prince requested the name of the dish and Henri, knowing where his bread was buttered, replied "crepes á la Princesse." Edward, being a noble chap, literally, insisted that the dish be named after the lady at the table, a small girl named Suzette.

Wonderful story. You can just hear people go "awwwww...." when they read it. It has shown up in at least one edition of The Joy of Cooking. And it may be a complete load of merde de taureau.

According to the Larousse Gastronomique, the encyclopedia of things culinary, Charpentier was simply too young have achieved the status of head waiter waiting on the prince. Since the LG is written for an intelligent audience, what goes unsaid is that of course only the most senior of staff would have waited on the future king of England. The LG also points out that, although Charpentier claimed to have invented the dish in Monte Carlo, the same dish was being being written about in Paris a year or so later. I suppose it is possible that the dish could be reversed engineered and a Parisian establishment could have picked it up... or not.

But it is a wonderful story. It taps into what we like to believe about ourselves (mistakes provide spectacular opportunities), what we like to believe about the process of creation (it is a matter of luck and inspiration and not years of grinding work), and what we like to believe about our leaders (they are unfailingly courteous and understanding and noble). In some way, the LG seems like a bunch of elitist snobs. Who are they to be bringing logic and rationality into this discussion? They are annoying as all hell.

I know, because I'm annoyed. And I don't want to be. Surely, truth matters? Always?

And it does. I don't believe Henri's story anymore -- I think it's too doubtful. It may be true, but absent other evidence I am not going to simply take his word on it.

But there are others who might not feel that way
NEW YORK - James Frey and the publishing world can relax a little: Oprah isn’t angry.

For days, Frey has been intensely criticized — and defended — over allegations that his best-selling memoir of addiction, “A Million Little Pieces,” was far from the candid self-portrait that he, his publisher and Winfrey had claimed it to be.

But until she made a surprise call Wednesday night to CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Winfrey, who selected the book for her book club, had maintained a suspenseful silence.

Phoning in near the end of the show, on which Frey gave his first interview since the controversy broke earlier this week, she dismissed the affair as “much ado about nothing” and urged readers inspired by the book to “keep holding on.”

“What is relevant is that he was a drug addict ... and stepped out of that history to be the man he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves,” Winfrey said, adding that she had wanted to hear Frey’s comments before speaking to him or saying anything in public.

Frey has been under close scrutiny since The Smoking Gun (, an investigative Web site, posted a story last Sunday alleging the author had substantially fabricated his criminal record and other aspects of his past.

Publishers, writers and readers have had their say, but Winfrey’s is likely the defining opinion. Her selection last fall of “A Million Little Pieces” for her book club made the memoir a million-copy seller and Frey a hero among recovering addicts.

Frey has acknowledged to The Smoking Gun that he embellished parts of the book and he said so again Wednesday night, stating that alterations were common for memoirs and defending “the essential truth” of “A Million Little Pieces.”

“The book is about drug addiction and alcoholism,” he said. “The emotional truth is there.”

What matters is "the emotional truth"? Hey, my emotional truth is that I have a NYT best seller. Does that matter?

“What is relevant is that he was a drug addict ... and stepped out of that history to be the man he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves,” not that he didn't learn to tell the truth somewhere in that process? Honey, he's still an addict, just addicted to different things. Like attention-seeking, maybe.

This is why we have a country where our leaders cannot be held accountable for a damned thing -- because truth does not count. "Emotional truth" -- you can translate to "security from terrorists" if you like -- trumps actual truth -- which translates nicely to "we are in a quagmire of a war" or "people's civil liberties are being eroded" or "loyal dissent is a concept that has been destroyed" or any one of a number of things.

Truth matters, and we are doomed until we as a nation act like it does.

Update: On her January 26 show, Oprah confronted Frey about the fabrications in his book. Winfrey told Frey, "It is difficult for me to talk to you because I really feel duped... I feel that you betrayed millions of readers." She said that she regretted earlier defending Frey, because "I left the impression that the truth is not important." Yes, Oprah, you did. Glad you corrected that.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

It strikes me that that last post was overly melodramatic. All it lacked was Snidely Whiplash twirling his mustaches.

I think I could have made my central point a little less.... floridly. Maybe I should not be writing in the middle of the night.

In the dead of the night...

There comes the fear.

Growing up, the nighttime fear was always there, in some shape... vague forms threatening vague harm in the future. No names, no faces. Loneliness, loss, madness. Must stay alone, must not allow people in, must not trust, must not.... be vulnerable. During the day, the fear went receded, although never completely gone.

After I had kids, that became trickier. How to love, how to care, how to trust .... The fear took on a new focus, the loss a new shape -- or three shapes. And not only in the nighttime; when a bus was late or someone forgot to call when they went friend A's house after school, or dropped by friend B's house on a Saturday coming back from the park.

Somewhere along the line, I learned to let the fear run and not try and hold it to myself. It goes away sooner, and I can get back to the job I'm supposed to do, which is taking care of people. And I learned to let people into my life, into my heart, I learned to trust that the world will hold together.

But lately, the fear is different, and doesn't go away. I am afraid of a society I see changing around me to something I don't recognize anymore. The government is lying and spying and far too few people seem to care enough about it to change it. My government -- in my name -- thinks it is okay to indefinitely hold people with no right to anything even vaguely resembling due process. A president that has argued that, as we are at war, he should be allowed to do any damn thing he wants.

Dear God.

I want to be more politically active, but you know what? I'm too cowardly. My livelihood, as a dependent spouse of a federal civil servant, depends solely upon the good graces of the federal government.

Legally, an individual's political beliefs -- or those of their relatives -- are not acceptable grounds for work sanctions. Civil servants are protected from political reprisals. Everyone knows that.

Everyone knew that it was illegal for the government to wiretap phones without a warrant, too.

I am already waiting to be placed on the no-fly list, due to my psychiatric history.

I am afraid because I see people selling t-shirts which say that people like me should be shot. I am afraid because people like me have been called traitors, and people standing on very big soapboxes -- with labels like Fox News and Clear Channel Communications on the side -- have said that I don't deserve to live, that violence against me would be justified. (No, no links -- there are too many numerous examples, and it's too late, and besides, no one is reading this besides me.) And people tell me I should think all of it is funny?

I fear for my country. And not at the hands of outside terrorists, either.

And all the time, not just in the dead of night in my dreams.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

So the Court has upheld Oregon's right-to-die case. I almost never agree with Clarence Thomas, but I do with one point he raised in his dissent. How, pray tell, is this different from the medical marijuana case decided last term? And don't give me that "legal v. illegal" argument: marijuana has been legalized for very limited purposes, and pharmaceuticals are illegal when used outside of their prescribed uses.

Maybe it's because drugs that come in nice little pills don't scare people, and drugs that come in bits of green herb do.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Ah, always good to test hypotheses...

Turns out, even members have to do the "fill in the word you see below" bit. Damn. I always hate those.

And in the beginning....

Were words. Some, at least.

I originally started this as a means to avoid having to go through the damn word verification process on Cristopher Robinson's blog, Ink Smudges. I already have a Live Journal -- whether I actually want to keep more than one blog is something I have not really thought about.

I am writing this as though someone were actually going to read it. Ah, vanity, thy name is Pat.